Rich Da(L), Poor Da(L)

My mother has two distinct qualities. First, dragging God into matters where she thinks her logic fails to convince us and second, choosing health over taste. ALWAYS. Since God is busy multitasking and seldom comes to my mom’s rescue, my mom leaves no stone unturned in exercising her second quality. As a result of this she only thinks dal and veggies. She prefers calculating the amount of protein to calculating calories. So, where cakes and goodies make special appearances, dal is the undisputed king of the dining table( courtesy the abundance of protein). Its availability makes it a clear winner against the seasonal green vegetables.  It is there on the table every meal, 365 days of the year.

 I started, like any other child, with detesting it. The yellow slimy liquid yelled out health each time I popped a spoon full of it  into my mouth. For me each bowl of dal (though different colors when uncooked) had the same color when cooked…that of Hatred. However, it did not take me long to realize, there was no escaping the evil bowl of health.  Slowly I stopped making faces but I had preferences. I could not make out which dal I was eating but would quickly refer to my memory and yell, “Ye wo dal nahi hai, tasty wala”. My mom read between the lines. So before I could decipher which of those colors I liked, my mom knew. 

Then came the obvious next step (after I was old enough to place a pressure cooker on the gas burner) of taming the monster. I learnt how to prepare dal even before mugging up the color coding and nomenclature involved. I would rush, with a jar full of one of the colors, to my mom to confirm whether that was the one to be converted to yellow, on that day. I do not remember when I started recognizing one color from the other. Just like I do not remember how did I learn how to check time (Do you?). By the way I still have friends who cannot name different kinds of pulses, so I chuckle, each time I think I can.


After leaving home, at 18, I traveled down south for studies. Only to find all new preparations and flavors of dal(by now my favorite). The density reduced and the sourness increased. The only common thing, its omnipresence. From sambhar to rasam to vada to probably everything. Luckily I did not take time  acquiring the taste. I fell in love with it instantly.

Lately, I realized the irony. While the most exotic Indian menus (especially vegetarian) have a “dal makhani” included, the term dal is always associated with lack of wealth. This came to my mind when I was text-chatting with a colleague of mine, who was waiting to place his order for lunch at a dhaba near office. The topic of discussion was appraisals and increments and the moment I messaged  that I thought there were going to be none, the reply was, “thought of ordering something exotic but now that you say there would be no increments, I should order dal fry.. 🙂”  By the way we do realize that after inflation and price rise, pulses have become costlier than most of the green veggies( commonly available), don’t we?

 The protein laden lentils are a staple. Subsidized for the class which can afford it and abundant yet out reach for those who can’t. Hostels and jails(very thin line to differentiate them)  would cease to exist if they did not have dal ( followed by potato) to their rescue. The most aesthetically shot jail shots include the prisoner being provided with dry roti and a bowl of dal. We have songs written on the humble dal. The rich have dal with desi ghee or butter and the poor have it without the extra richness but they all have it. The multipurpose legume has its reign over different palates, across  classes.

A recent report in the newspaper suggested that getting attracted to fatty foods could be attributed to the genes present in human beings. I did not need that report; I can see it live in my family. Had it not been my mother, my father, my sister and me could have made it into the limca book of records for being on the wrong side of the weighing scale. She made sure having unhealthy food was like a barter system. So for every extra spoon of butter chicken that we had for lunch there was an extra spoon of bitter gourd on our plate, for dinner. She has made healthy eating a habit for us. I do not say that we are the epitome of fitness, we do realise its importance. Now the two of us, my sister and me, live away from parents and as the cliché goes, have realized the importance of healthy food only after leaving home.  

Now dal(again for its availability), for me, has become conscience food. Whenever I have had a heavy lunch I make sure I have a bowl of dal at night. With a little bit of butter at the beginning of the month and without it at the end. I don’t say I sleep calorie-free but definitely guilt free!!!!! All thanks to my mom’s quality of choosing health over taste. ALWAYS. She doesn’t even need to drag God into convincing us. 🙂

That’s how I make dal fry:

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup Chana dal( I like it the most)
  •  4 Cups water
  • Oil /ghee/butter for masala
  • Cumin seeds
  • Dry Red chillies(2 or 3)
  • 2 onions( chopped or sliced)
  • Ginger-garlic paste( chopped ginger and garlic would also suffice)
  • 2 tomatoes
  • salt
  • turmeric
  • garam masala powder
  • hara fresh dhaniya(finely chopped)

How I make it :  

Rinse  the chana dal and place it in a pressure cooker. I then add water, salt to taste and turmeric. Close the lid of the pressure cooker and place the whistle. I keep it on medium flame till the first whistle and then simmer it down completely for three more of those loud whistles. 

Meanwhile : 

i)In a pan I  heat the oil. Add cumin seeds and then the split dry red chillies and wait for them to splutter. Once done I add the ginger garlic paste and fry till the paste turns a golden brown.  I then  add the onion( chopped or sliced depending on my mood) and wait for it to change color to brown.

ii)To this I add chopped tomatoes and fry the mixture till the tomatoes soften and the bhuna mixture starts releasing oil. I add a little bit of garam masala towards the end and a little bit of water.

iii)To this mixture I add the dal from the pressure cooker and add some  water depending upon the needed consistency. Allow it to boil for a few minutes and then add  finely chopped hara dhaniya and a blob of butter or spoon of desi ghee.

 Variations: 

a)     Instead of the paste we could add finely chopped ginger and garlic. This adds texture. I do not do it because I do not like the taste of garlic but do not mind the flavor.

b)     Asfoetida( heeng) could be added. A pinch of it with the garam masala. That too depends on personal preferences.

 

 

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Baked for each Other

PicCourtesy: Dini PhilipAfter spring came the summer of 1992. My little sister was born and she chose to share my birthday month and thus started the adorable tradition of celebrating birthdays together. The most important ritual was baking several cakes of different sizes as we always had a tiered cake. The top tier would hold  the number of candles corresponding to kiddos age. My mom would religiously sieve the flour fold in the butter , beat the batter, grease the baking tin, pour in the gorgeous batter( I always thought of eating it raw, why torturing it by putting it into the oven 😛 ) and place it in the oven.

However,  I think I volunteered for the toughest job, watching the cake slowly rise and  attain that beautiful golden color. Grow old as you might, your mother , till her last breath, would  tell you,  “careful!!!”( didn’t you just smile), as you came closer to the oven( mine still does that). It might sound easy but staring at the oven WAS a tough job. Especially when I knew that I was not going to get a bite till later in the evening when all my  friends would be drooling over the cakes with greedy eyes and their moms( if invited) would be  full of praise for what a wonderful baker my mom was.

Coming back to cakes. My first step in baking cakes was sitting with my mom in the kitchen watching her. As I grew a little older she would allow me to do odd jobs like sieve the flour, measure the sugar( grinding not allowed as it required ” electric” mixer grinder), beat eggs, and  finally fold the batter. Mind you, all this did not happen overnight. It took several years and at  least thrice its number of  cakes for my mom to pass on the legacy but I successfully graduated.

Living in and out of hostels and company accommodations, never let me settle down in life after Bokaro. Then Delhi happened. A city where I have spent the longest duration after college and where( after changing several accommodations) I finally have a beautiful kitchen. I had crappy ones too but who wants to know the sad story. Finally I could  bake cakes but I still did not ( or for that matter do not) have an oven. That’s when the age old pressure cooker comes to my rescue. 

That’s how I made the first Chocolate Cake in Delhi.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup Maida( *refined flour* for the elite :P)
  • 1/3 cup Sugar
  • 1/4 cup Oil
  • 3 tbsp Cocoa Powder
  • 3/4 cup warm milk
  • 1/2 tsp Baking Powder
  • 1/4 tsp Vanilla Essence
  • 2 tsp Unsalted Butter
How I made it : 

i) Sieved together refined flour, salt, baking powder and cocoa powder and kept aside.

ii) In a vessel mixed together refined oil, butter and powdered sugar and beat well. Added the sieved flour mixture and mixed well. Added the vanilla essence and then added the milk a spoon at a time to adjust the batter to a pouring consistency. The cake batter was ready.

iii) I then greased a the baking tin( usually aluminium but you could use a steel vessel) with 1/2 tsp of refined oil and dusted the surface with refined flour. Poured the cake batter into the greased tin. (The  batter should fill half the baking tin and not more.)

iv) Pressure cooker and and about an inch of Water in it were put on a flame. Then kept a stand inside the cooker to hold the baking tin. Once the water came to a boil placed the cake tin on the stand( and yes… ” careful”..I was)

v) Closed the lid of the cooker. Removed the whistle and placed it on low flame. Allowed the cake to steam for 30 minutes. Opened the cooker and allowed it to steam without lid for 5 minutes.

vi)Inserted a knife to check.(The knife should come out clean. If it sticks steam for some more time.)

There is a reason why I make the cakes egg less and not with eggs. My mom is a religious woman and follows some rules like not having ” non-veg” (which includes eggs) on particular days of a week ( I hope she realizes that there are only seven in a week). We never made chocolate cakes  at home. My mom does not like the smell( yes she made it a point to say smell and not any other word like flavor or aroma) of chocolates. We never forced her to make one either. After all, she would have the first bite after we would cut the cake. She is our mom. Now I relive my chocolate dreams but try to keep the cake egg less.. 

We spell cakes with a ‘c’ because that’s what we spell celebration with. However now that I bake cakes, we hardly  celebrate birthdays together. Work, studies and above all distances have taken a toll. Now when I bake a cake, I miss staring at the oven, my mom saying .. “careful”… and even though  I can have the cake immediately after I make it… I wouldn’t mind waiting till all of us are together…. 

Salt and Dad



The spring of 1992. My mother was heavily pregnant with my sister. She had to appear for her exams in order to complete her masters degree in history. This meant she had to leave the town, thus leaving us alone for a while.

So, left in that beautiful spring were my dad and me, to take care of each other. He  cooked regularly to  make sure I did not go hungry even when he was away at work. That is when my tryst with taste started. My dad, with a clean towel over his shoulder and a happy smile on  his face, would conjure the magic with spices and I would drag a chair to hop on, to be able to peek into the pressure cooker.

If you look at me and my father, we look like the products from the same manufacturing unit, just a few decades and a gender apart. The only other common feature among the two of us is our passion for cooking and absolutely nothing else, not even our education in engineering( he chose to be an engineer and I was convinced to become one). Here I would also like to mention that it is cooking that intrigues me and not food. The process and not the end product surprises me.

It’s Therapeutic. It heals, rejuvenates and above all makes me ( I guess all of us ) nostalgic. A trip to the local markets, looking for the best meat, fish and veggies, clinging to my father’s fingers. Cumin Seeds spluttering in hot oil. Applying my engineering drawing precision into chopping onion . Memories make up the skeleton of whatever I know about cooking.

Recipes travel across generations and our memories gracefully lend their shoulders silently for them to travel. We repeat the recipes which have conquered our taste buds and thus  registered their irreplaceable position in our memory book. When we eat out and repeat our order we compare it to our previous visit, even without realizing that we just compared.

Nine years of living away from parents taught me how to cook, through hostel food and thus survive any kind of intestinal encounters. I am not a culinary genius. I do not have a formal training in Culinary art. I am an engineer and all my life have observed two algorithms of cooking at home:

Mom’s:    Everything for health

Dad’s:       Anything for taste

And after scheduling I found a middle path:

Healthy Conscience, Tasty Eating

This way when I want to add that extra blob of butter, just to add that extra sheen to the butter chicken, my hands spoon out only half a blob.

My father, however has always dominated. He has been a constant inspiration and the best companion in my culinary journey and one of his first lessons was: Instead of a spoon use your palm to measure the amount of salt that goes into a dish and use your fingers to sprinkle it. I do not know whether this is right but trust me, it has never gone wrong….He taught me how the aroma tells you that the salt in the dish is just perfect….